Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Activision may be best known for their Call Of Duty series, but they have been producing video games for decades across multiple platforms, including a hefty array on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Although some of these cartridges were outright stinkers, like their renditions of Ghostbusters and Super Pitfall, other were decent or even good. Somewhere in the latter mix lies the side-scrolling action title Sword Master, developed by Athena Co.
Sword Master is a side-scrolling action game in which one player controls the protagonist, the Sword Master, is an admittedly generic plotline revolving around rescuing a damsel in distress from the clutches of some evil dark lord who has resurrected an army of undead abominations with which he is now attempting to take over the world. Of course.
There are seven levels, each of which concludes with a boss fight, and typically has a mini-boss somewhere in the middle as well. This title can barely be considered a “platformer” in the literal sense; although there is jumping from surfaces to other surfaces of different elevations, and even some precision-jumping puzzles that involve pattern-oriented enemies, unlike traditional platformers like the Super Mario Bros and Mega Man series, the running and jumping movements are not the emphasis here. The combat system takes the spotlight, and shows some muscular depth.
The player’s character does not move quickly and, in fact, jumps forward in a hop slightly faster than walking movement alone. The A button performs the jump, and the B button attacks with the sword, offering some options for attack depending on which direction is pressed on the D-Pad as well. Pressing Up with the strike will swing overhead, just hitting B along will jab forward with the blade, and holding Down will go to a crouch, offering a low blow with the sword from that position. Also, our hero can move forward while crouching, a neat touch.
Additionally, the Sword Master himself also uses a shield as well. Holding Up will hold the shield up, while pressing Down steadies the shield straight ahead. Neither renders our character invincible, but make it possibly to block oncoming attacks from projectiles such as fireballs or the incoming weapon-swings of other warriors. This will be especially essential for certain boss fights.
The challenge, then, comes in trying to deftly deal with dexterous dastards ranging from leaping wolves, flying bats, floating eyeballs, dark knights, evil wizards, lizard men, and other medieval-fantasy tropes, along with some truly unique (note the flaming flying giant sperm beings in the village). This slowed-down, fight-emphasizing gameplay really turns this into a game of strategy over speed and tactics over tricks. Surviving the onslaught unscathed will require the player to master the swordplay involved; which is perfectly appropriate, given that the name of the game is Sword Master.
This makes Sword Master a sophisticated choice, a gamer’s game, a hardcore old-school brutalization, a test that those saddled with ADHD are going to have a problem with. Now, that prior sentence makes it sound like this is a hipster’s classic, a true all-time great, and a vastly overlooked NES cartridge; however, do not misunderstand, there are certainly some flaws that prevent Sword from being a four-star game or better.
The game is very challenging. Not quite Ninja Gaiden or three-life Contra challenging, but a grueling, despairing gauntlet nonetheless. While difficulty alone is not a bad ingredient, and can even be a strong point, and may even be so here, there are undoubtedly some moments in Sword Master that merely amount to frustration, not tightly honed missives.
Then there is the scroll mechanic. Many 8-bit video games had a scrolling threshold related to the position of the protagonist on the screen. If you play Super Mario Bros., you will notice that Mario tends to stay right in the center of the game. Others games have the character going slightly past the middle before the screen starts slowly. These are fine options, and allow the player time to react to oncoming stimuli. But in Sword Master, the player is punished for well-skilled efforts by having the screen scroll forward even if the Master is four-fifth’s of the way across the play field. This makes for some rather brazenly hard reaction-time conundrums, unless the player intentionally plods forward at a slower rate.
Aside from the black-and-white flaws and strengths, there are a few elements that must be judged on a player-by-player basis. The foremost example may be the level-up system. As the player slaughters creatures and kills people, an experience bar increases, until filling up and gaining a level, which grants a couple more ticks on the health bar. This is an intriguing way of going about things, but later in the same, enemies are doing more damage, while the health pick-ups (a potion) still merely heal a miniscule amount. This discrepancy is questionable, even if nitpicky. One nice note: Enemies that take more than one hit to kill show a health bar of their own, an addition that would be much appreciated in many other NES games that otherwise withhold.
Next for consideration is the transformation element. Yes, Sword Master has a transformation effect in play, after getting a cloak, in which the player can transform into a mage (that is a wizard, for you non-geeks out there) and press Start to bring up a spells menu, with available magics picked up from defeated enemies. The foursome ranges from a classic fireball to vertically oriented lightning bolt. Holding the B button powers up the spells before unleashing. But excited players must consider the cost: Every spell-cast chops down the experience bar, until the original Sword Master form is reverted to. This seems somewhat steep, especially since the mage has no shield and is thus more vulnerable.
Oh, and there are five continues, and a level that entirely consists of projectile-dodging, and believe it or not, the instruction manual refers to the flying flame sperm enemy as “Fire Seed.” No kidding.
Overall, Sword Master is a meaty, well-developed, distinctive game. The sword-fighting takes some getting used to, although the acclimation process is very intentional, even if a total mastery will still lend some “what the-” moments of unexplainable enemy-interaction weirdness.
This game looks fantastic. This may sound contradictory, but the motions are smooth, even if the animations are a little stiff. One obvious graphic area in which Sword Master shines is in its background visuals. Oh my. These are among the slickest-lookin’ backgrounds on the console, top-notch stuff. Just check out the gorgeous parallax scrolling two-layer work in the initial forest level as an example, but even in the static background images of the village and the castle, the detail work is solid. Along with some fun turns at enemy design and minimal issues like the flickering and slowdown sometimes seen on other games, this is a decidedly visually appealing game.
The auditory department of Sword Master I intriguing. The sound effects, maybe for the best, are subdued, striking quick and quiet in their flourishes. But when the protagonist attacks, rather than hear the swish of a sword, the player hears a cheap little voice effect. Okay, maybe trying to be impressive, but any “ooh” or “aah” effect is lost when it is repeated hundreds upon hundreds of times.
The background music is not bad. The sound-engineering folks at Activision & Athena show off their chops by demonstrating a thorough understanding of the NES console hardware limitations, using all available sound channels to the max, and working in some nifty effects. Yet, perhaps humorously, for all their technical prowess, the actual compositional strength is limited, as the melodies are not especially memorable and nothing here stands the test of time as a memorable NES classic background tune or stage music.
Sword Master is fairly distinctive. While other NES games may have a sword-swinging figure at their core, no other title quite emphasizes the swordplay workings as strongly as the Master. Even though the storyline is incredibly generic, at least the execution is respectable, and makes it clear that this is not a game that was ever supposed to be about the story, but about the gameplay. With some quirks intact, it remains a solid game, and is awarded a score of three and a half stars out of five.